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Rehabilitating Forney Ridge Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Forever

Forney Ridge Trail pic 1 - before
The Forney Ridge Trail wasn't much of a trail before it received some serious rehabilitation work by park crews. Photo by Christine Hoyer, NPS.

In the trail guide, Hiking Trails of the Smokies, the description of Forney Ridge Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park starts out, The first section of Forney Ridge Trail is eroded and uneven. After a couple of paragraphs, it continues, After more rocky descent with roots to trip you ...

Now the trail guide will need to be updated. Thanks to a major rehabilitation project spread over several years, Forney Ridge Trail from Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald is now a piece of trail art. The project is also a fine example of dedicated volunteers working side by side with a professional trail crew.    

In this spruce-fir forest at over 6,500 feet, Forney Ridge Trail was a mess of damaged rock work, roots, and mud. The 1.8-mile section from Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald gets very high use and hikers were cutting and going off trail to avoid slipping on mud and rocks. Now that the trail has been redone, they stay on the trail.

"At this altitude, you wouldn't think that water was the biggest problem on Forney Ridge Trail," says Tobias Miller, the park's supervisory facility operations specialist, "but it is."

Partly because the path to the top of Clingmans Dome Tower is paved, the water finds its way downhill and onto Forney Ridge Trail instead of being absorbed by the soil. In 2002, a crew worked on replacing the beginning of the trail to the Appalachian Trail bypass, about a half-mile. They used pressure-treated wood that you can buy in any lumber yard to line the trail.

But in 2008, the park, funded by Friends of the SmokiesTrails Forever endowment, created a position to coordinate and direct volunteers to work with park personnel on major trail projects.

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The finished product. Danny Bernstein photo.

Christine Hoyer, the park's trails and facility volunteer coordinator, directed five volunteers working with five park staff members to continue rehabilitating Forney Ridge Trail. They moved rocks, took down hazard trees, and put in steps.

For each small section, Ms. Hoyer took pictures before the work was started. As I walk with her and Mr. Miller on the revitalized trail, she shows me photographs before the trail transformation.

"We don't want people to note that we just rehabbed the trail," Mr. Miller says. "We want it to look natural."

Trails are not made by God but by people, but I know what he means. They left some organic elements - read mud - to give balance to the trail and make it look natural.

How did they move all those rocks, logs, and trees? Mostly brute strength. Some of these rocks are 1,000 pounds. Much of the trail is built up on top of scree. They don't take the rocks out of the ground because that would create too much erosion, not to mention even more work. The rocks that they used to build up the trail came from the sides of the trail.

When you look at a rock on this trail, you can't tell that two-thirds of the rock is underneath the soil. Sometimes, they turned a rock or moved it. I keep looking for the holes that must have been left when they moved rocks but I can't find the holes.

Not every section needed rocks and steps. Where there was more soil, gravel was used to fill in. Soil gives water a place to go.

"Here we took a large rock and split it. It will look like it's supposed to be here. Soon," Mr. Miller says, "these rocks will moss over."

These trail folks have a vocabulary all their own. In the Southern Appalachians, water is a trail's biggest enemy. Ms. Hoyer shows me where they've created an inside drain, between the side of the trail and the forest, to give water another passage way to go downhill away from the trail.

At one place, they had to blow up a rock that was over 5 feet high. They drilled a hole through the rock, filled it with water, and used a gunpowder charge to break it up. They had to repeat this many time until the rock finally split.

The crew also built a stairway to the Dome, with beautifully carved steps where mud, water, and precarious sliding rocks used to be. It's not often that you can do a foot-by-foot reconstruction of a trail as one coherent piece. Even though the crew used most of what was found on the trail itself, they did need to bring up some stuff. Materials were staged, another trail builder's word. Supplies were flown in to Andrews Bald by helicopter and then moved by people to the work area.

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Christine Hoyer and Tobias Miller test a section of the finished product. Danny Bernstein photo.

"It was a fun project," says Ms. Hoyer.

And all of this was done without closing the trail.

Visitors wanted to know what crime the workers had committed to deserve this hard labor. They were shocked when they learned that this project involved volunteers.

"You mean you do this for free?" passing hikers asked.

American Trails is the clearing house for information about trail building. Traditionally, people have learned the skill set by mentorship and apprenticeship. Certainly that's how Mr. Miller and Ms. Hoyer learned these trail techniques. Mr. Miller built his skills while working in western national parks for many years. Ms. Hoyer spent several years on the Konnarock crew, the premier trail maintenance crew on the Appalachian Trail.

Now there are some academic programs and more professional ways of learning trail building and layout.

"From the Civilian Conservation Corps days to the 1970s, there was no trail crew in the Smokies," notes Mr. Miller. "Then with the reawakening of the outdoors, the park created two trail crews, one for North Carolina, and another for Tennessee. In the Smokies, the regular crews are busy keeping the trails open. Here, because of the temperate rainforest ecosystem, we have dynamic trail conditions."

In 2011, Ms. Hoyer worked on park trails with 442 volunteers, including college students on Spring break, and local elementary school students. For the paid crew, Forney Ridge was the priority project. But she manages to find real satisfying trail work for any group that wants to volunteer.

Trails Forever is an endowment fund that will pay for a third professional maintenance crew - forever. This crew will concentrated on large trail rehabilitation projects with the use of volunteers.

In the meantime, Forney Ridge Trail reconstruction allowed the park to pilot the program and redo a popular trail while building a cadre of trail volunteers that will keep coming back to work in the park. And it is work! 

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Thanks for this story, Danny. The trail rockwork is impressive, as is the continuing endowment for maintenance!

I was surprised, though, to read of the past use of pressure-treated lumber. During my career, the use of hydrocarbon wood preservatives and treated lumber in the backcountry was prohibited at Olympic and Mount Rainier due to concerns about potential effects on soils and water quality. This was before arsenic and chromium based treatments were banned in 2003, but it seems to me these concerns apply to the current copper-based treatments as well.

Here in the northwest, the lowest quality wood (usually hemlock) is most often pressure treated. My experience has been that it only lasts about ten years in contact with the ground. In my opinion, full-round or naturally split wood lasts several times as long as lumber sawn across the grain and is much more aesthetic on trails than dimension lumber.

Great article! Thanks for writing this, Danny.
What an enormous project! I still can't believe they hauled and placed all those boulders. Not to mention they placed them so carefully that the steps are easy to ascend--I've walked some stairways up to buildings that trip you up, but had no problem hiking back up the Forney Ridge Trail!

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